Friday, February 1, 2019

Tolstoy on War: The Systemic Vision of a Tragedy

Leon Tolstoy set his novel, "War and Peace" (1867) during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia of 1812. But he had not witnessed that war -- rather, Tolstoy had fought in another senseless and bloody war, the Crimean War (1853-1856), an experience that deeply influenced his thought. Tolstoy had a deep vision of the tragedy that wars are and his viewpoint is similar to our modern one based on statistics, although obtained by intuition only. Above, a painting by Vasilii Nesterenko (2005) that celebrates the Russian defense of Sevastopol in 1855.

From Tolstoy's “War and Peace” (1867)

To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolénsk and Moscow and were killed by them.

To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.

<..> Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes—myriads of causes—coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west, slaying their fellows.

<..> it was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power—the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns—should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.

<..> When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it?

<..> And so there was no single cause for war, but it happened simply because it had to happen”


  1. Lovely. I so enjoy your ability to add dimension to a subject. I also regret not being able to read your prose in Italian; your English is sometimes lyrical.
    Hegel; isn't he king of "history writes itself;" his point being that there is not anything remarkable about the people in history, many people could have done the same thing, but history didn't select them. I believe he used Napoleon as an example (I'm perhaps a neo-hegelian at best)of a leader who could never have actually achieved what he did except that history dictated it. He would use trump as a demonstration.
    I have a very slightly different approach, and would love to spend a long afternoon discussing it a length, but the espresso version is that the self organizing system grows, and stresses within it, both from growth phase and from perturbations from outside, creates the opportunities for what appears to be human agency.
    We can think of Napoleon as an electric discharge; there were many atoms which, in the charged state of the system, could have been the first; it was Napoleon, the stresses and opportunities around him allowed him to be the focus.
    Am I a strict-determinist? No, but only because my math isn't good enough for me to fully understand the implications. In general, though, don't such systems run in a way that is confusing to us, but actually very deterministic? No two points are the same; no series of relationships can produce more than one point. Nearly alike situations often have very different outcomes, but still we can jigger the numbers and make a pattern, a morphology visible such that we can make generalized statements.
    However, whether strictly determined or just formed by momentary and shifting forces within the system, war, and then growth, and then war, and then collapse is the usual dance in high energy systems; Indus Valley civilization not withstanding.
    So, in a neo-hegelian way, we see that the system creates its own great figures.
    Remember your wonderful piece on the little girl who's going to save the world by talking Big Mood to important people? There is an entire army of her out there; the circumstances chose her. Wait, it was influential people who chose her, right? OK, then the circumstances chose them, too.

    I know many, many other sociological and anthropological discussions on things like war and slavery and cooperation and resource appropriation, if you have a long afternoon.

  2. "And so there was no single cause for war, but it happened simply because it had to happen”

    Or because of the arrogance, vanity and lust for power of a single individual, who managed to convince the unthinking masses that he had something to offer them?

  3. Let us throw all morality out the window, then, since morality presupposes free will and presumably there's no such thing as free will. What happened just HAD to happen. No point trying to do anything about the coming collapse either, I suppose.

    This -- the nonexistence of free will -- appears to be the message in much of Greek mythology as well, if I'm not mistaken. Oedipus was fated to kill his father, Cassandra was fated not to be listened to, etc. One wonders if it might not have been this sort of thinking that caused ancient Greek civilization to run out of steam by the time of Sophocles' death.

  4. r i f l e s s o

    bohm: io sto proponendo che la modalità con la quale tutto questo sistema funziona è attraverso un insieme di riflessi [pOOp] – che la cosa è un insieme molto sottile di riflessi che è illimitato in potenza. ci può essere una percezione di ragione al di là dei riflessi, tuttavia ogni cosa percepita diventa prima o poi un insieme di riflessi. sentire e pensare attraverso mente e corpo forma una struttura di riflessi neuro-psicologici. attraverso la ripetizione (come per esempio imparare a guidare la macchina senza pensarci), l’intensità emotiva e la difensività, questi riflessi diventano (chimicamente) cablati, a tal punto che essi rispondono agli stimoli indipendentemente dalla nostra scelta cosciente [i cani di paplov, condizionamento]

    un riflesso opera semplicemente. tuttavia non pensiamo che un pensiero sia come il riflesso del ginocchio. noi riteniamo generalmente che ‘noi’ controlliamo i concetti e produciamo i concetti. ma io sto suggerendo che normalmente non funziona così – che una grande [1/2 sec, 20b/s] parte dei nostri pensieri provengono da un sistema di riflessi. tu riesci a percepire solo il pensiero che esce fuori dopo questo processo.

    ed essi inoltre interferiscono tra loro. un riflesso può essere connesso con l’endorfina e produrre un impulso che rinforza ulteriormente lo schema. in altre parole, si sta producendo un riflesso ‘difensivo’. non è soltanto il fatto che tale riflesso si tiene assieme perché è ben costruito chimicamente, ma anche perché è un riflesso difensivo, che si difende contro l’evidenza che porterebbe ad indebolirlo. così accade tutto. un riflesso e dopo un altro e dopo un altro ancora. è semplicemente un vasto sistema di riflessi. ed essi formano una ‘struttura’ man mano che diventano più rigidi.

    e quando è fortemente condizionato, il riflesso si irrigidisce [bloccaggio]. allora può venire un tempo in cui quel riflesso può non essere più appropriato ma non è più capace di cambiare; perciò questo potrebbe produrre incoerenza. se qualcosa cambia ed il riflesso no, ne risulta una incoerenza.

    e tu non fai cose incoerenti di proposito. tu non sai nemmeno che le stai facendo. funziona allo stesso modo del ginocchio che si estende quando lo colpisci col martelletto, che ti piaccia o meno. allo stesso modo, quando qualcosa tocca questi riflessi – condizionanti, tu semplicemente stendi la gamba. ciò produce un risultato che tu non vuoi. così, coscientemente tu cerchi di raggiungere A, ma il riflesso scatta e produce B e tu dici: ma io non volevo B. non capisci come è saltato fuori, e cominci a combattere B mentre ti tieni il riflesso che l’ha prodotto [contrologica]

    tu puoi pure comprenderlo intellettualmente, ma comunque continua a funzionare in questa maniera. l’inganno è parte del riflesso, è la parte chimica del riflesso. il riflesso produce endorfine o altre sostanze chimiche, che producono una sorta di inganno.

  5. War is a collective state and action, that has been with mankind and its predecessors (and other species living in groups) since millions of years. It is a stable feature, while peace is clearly an unstable state, which has to be maintained and supported actively and consciously. As it is collective, systemic and complex, it cannot be understood by everyday logic, which only is reaching to something like A ==> B. It is anchored in a genetic predisposition, which every once in a while is expressed by a certain pattern of collective self-organization. Elements of this may be: a leader-led-structure, friend-foe-structure, a certain collective conversation nurturing feelings of pride, glory, fear, greed, superiority and the like, certain body language and I maybe (I hypothesize) even a certain unconscious smell.
    Keeping peace is always an uphill battle, to use a paradox metaphor.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)